Some 16 different species of annual and perennial monardas exist, all native to woodlands, fields, thickets and prairies stretching across much of the continent. Most modern-day hybrids thrive in zones 4-9 and are descended from wildflowers M. fistulosa and M. didyma. Wild monarda adds color to meadow or wildlife gardens, while its cultivated cousins come in a variety of colors and sizes, making them useful even in more sedate settings.

ImageMost commonly known as bee balm because its crushed leaves were once used to soothe insect stings, this genus’ scientific name honors 16th century Spanish botanist Nicolas Monardes. It is also sometimes called bergamot. Although no relation to Citrus bergamina, monarda’s fragrance is somewhat reminiscent of the bergamot tree’s orange-scented oil, famous for flavoring Earl Grey tea.

Recognized as a valuable kitchen plant by American colonists, monarda was at one time used to treat worms, gas, fever and stomach ailments. To many in New England the plant was known as “Oswego tea,” because New York settlers had adopted the local Native American tribe’s habit of brewing the leaves in water to make a beverage.

Casual yet elegant, sturdy monarda has upright stalks and square stems. The shaggy tubular blooms, in shades of pink, red, violet and soft white, appear throughout summer’s longest days. Depending on the variety, plants grow anywhere from one to three feet high. Both foliage and flowers are deliciously aromatic.

As with other members of the mint family, monarda can become aggressive if given the right conditions. Monitor its growth, especially if it is planted near more delicate plants. Because it spreads by underground stolons, you may need to surround the roots with a barrier to keep it from encroaching on its garden neighbors.

Monarda grows best in moist, well-drained soil in full sun or very light shade. Good air circulation is essential for preventing diseases such as powdery mildew and rust. Plants should be divided every few years to help them stay vigorous. After removing and discarding the dead centers, replant the healthy outer sections in fresh soil.

Some Favorite Monarda Cultivars:

'Marshall's Delight'
'Colrain Red'
'Raspberry Wine'
'Violet Queen'
'Gardenview Scarlet'
'Petite Delight

If your monarda has been troubled with powdery mildew in the past, you may wish to check out other varieties. Breeders have created many new hybrids with disease resistance in mind. Trials performed at the Chicago Botanic Garden (a link to the study is provided below) revealed some of the most mildew-resistant cultivars include ‘Marshalls Delight’, ‘Colrain Red’, ‘Raspberry Wine’, ‘Rose Queen’, ‘Rosy-Purple’, ‘Violet Queen’ and M. fistulosa f. albescens. Note that this study was published in 1998, so there are undoubtedly other, newer hybrids that are equally desirable.

Chicago Botanic Garden: Plant Evaluation Notes -- Monarda and Powdery Mildew Resistance

Photo Credits:
Thumbnail by tanakawho
Fritillary on monarda by Dwight Sipler

Thanks to these DG photographers:
‘Marshalls Delight’ by EvesEden
‘Colrain Red’ by growin
‘Raspberry Wine’ by wrightie
‘Violet Queen’ by KevinMc79
‘Gardenview Scarlet’ by merriego
‘Petite Delight’ by poppysue